Reformed Soul take stage as headline act in AFL

Jim Foster, left, founder of the Arena Football League, holds the trophy with Jon Bon Jovi, a majority owner of the Philadelphia Soul, after their win over the San Jose SaberCats in the ArenaBowl XXII football game in New Orleans, Sunday, July 27, 2008. The Soul won 59-56. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

March 10, 2011 2:57:45 PM PST
The Soul's days as Jon Bon Jovi's backing band are over.

From their debut season in 2004 to their Arena Football League championship in 2008, the Philadelphia Soul were always known as "Bon Jovi's Team." There was really nothing wrong with that. The arena rocker brought worldwide attention to the AFL franchise through local and national promotional work. He wore a Soul jersey at packed concerts around the globe.

Bon Jovi proudly backed the high-scoring indoor football league and put the Soul name in the spotlight more than any other franchise.

But he's Bon Jovi. Heart throb. Actor. Rock star.

That meant, there was little room in the press clippings for the ones who won Bon Jovi an AFL championship ring to pair with his Grammy awards - the players.

"He wasn't a distraction, but people didn't realize how good a team we were," receiver Mike Brown said. "We got attention for him. Our product on the field was what was important to us." "It was Bon Jovi and the Philadelphia Soul. Now, it's just the Philadelphia Soul."

The Soul have returned to the league after a two-year hiatus with a new front man and revamped roster. Gone are all but a few players from the championship team and Bon Jovi decided against returning for the franchise's rebirth.

Former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski and businessman Craig Spencer are the new majority owners.

The Soul open the season Friday at the Pittsburgh Power, an expansion team that boasts former Steelers great Lynn Swann as part of the ownership group. The game will air on the NFL Network and league commissioner Jerry B. Kurz insists the 18-team league has never been stronger as it enters its 24th season.

"We now have the best economic model and best economic situation the league has ever been in," Kurz said.

The Power signed a lease to play at the state-of-the-art Consol Center, the sparkling new home of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"As most people know, in Pittsburgh, black and gold means a lot, and the Pittsburgh Power will be in black and gold," Swann said. "It's my expectation to live up to the reputation that the sports franchises have in Pittsburgh. We will compete and we will compete hard."

When the Soul shut down after beating the San Jose SaberCats 59-56 to win the ArenaBowl championship in 2008, the league was a mess. The AFL canceled its season in 2009 after a 22-year run and returned last year with 15 teams under new leadership and economic model.

Jaworski always knew the Soul would return once the league developed a sound economic system. Slotted salaries, a salary cap and shorter contracts make business sense for Jaworski and the rest of the ownership group.

"We feel really good about our football team," Jaworski said. "But we also know that we are an expansion team."

Expansion or not, the Soul still good-naturedly bill their team as defending league champions. Philly never had a chance to repeat because the league was on the brink of folding and declaring bankruptcy.

Led by Bon Jovi's star power, the Soul were a No. 1 hit even in a crowded sports market. The Soul drew 131,817 fans for an average of 16,477 and sold out four of their eight home games in 2008.

They hope the fans of the niche league return.

"We're all kind of bearing that burden on our shoulders as far as trying to bring this game back to where it was," Soul coach Mike Hohensee said. "We want to make sure for the fans that when they come back and give it a chance again, it brings back a familiar feeling to them. It's like an old friend moving back into the neighborhood."

Who says you can't go home?

Fans showed up to support the Soul during training camp at the Philadelphia Eagles' facility. Because of availability issues at the Wells Fargo Center, the Soul don't play their home opener until April 15.

"We have to win them back," Brown said. "We have to show them that we're worth coming to see."

AFL veterans, who have seen the league's popularity spike and swoon, believe it could take time to make fans trust the franchise will stick around longer than five years.

"I think it's got a lot to work on," quarterback Justin Allgood said. "It's got a lot of fans that they have to rebuild. I think taking time off really hurt the feelings of a lot of people out there. Hopefully, they can find it in their hearts to come back out and enjoy it like we do."

The Soul held a small championship parade in Philadelphia and Bon Jovi helped design rings for the players. Last year, he delivered on a promise of a free concert in Philadelphia for Soul fans to celebrate their lone league title.

A second championship would come without the hype and hoopla that surrounded Bon Jovi's reign. But that's fine with the Soul, who just want to win one.

"We've got a good team here," Brown said. "We can do it without him."